Sa­lon se­lec­tions savoury af­ter 25 years

Toronto Star - - ENTERTAINM­ENT - Wil­liam Lit­tler

“From Rus­sia and Vi­enna to Toronto with pas­tries.” Or so read a Toronto Star head­line a few years ago.

And it wasn’t wrong. That quasi-James Bon­dian head­line en­cap­su­lated the essence of Off Cen­tre, the in­no­va­tive sa­lon-con­cert se­ries founded a quar­ter-cen­tury ago by the hus­band and wife piano team of Boris Zarankin and Inna Perkis.

This year’s sil­ver-an­niver­sary sea­son opens a week from Sun­day — Oct. 6 at 3 p.m. at Trin­ity-St. Paul’s Cen­tre — with one of its sig­na­ture events, an an­nual Schu­ber­tiad cel­e­brat­ing the mu­sic of the beloved Vi­en­nese com­poser Franz Schu­bert.

Zarankin and Perkis will, of course, be tak­ing part, along with mezzo-so­prano An­drea Lud­wig and the Rose­bud String Quar­tet (the lat­ter a new en­sem­ble of play­ers drawn from the Cana­dian Opera Com­pany Orches­tra).

Later con­certs will also fea­ture their daugh­ters Ilana (a so­prano who stud­ied with Dawn Up­shaw) and Ju­lia, a mu­si­col­o­gist with a PhD from Prince­ton. The Zarank­ins are noth­ing if not a mu­si­cal fam­ily.

More­over, it’s a fam­ily from Rus­sia, as that Star head­line sug­gests, where Inna was a school­mate and piano-fourhands part­ner of con­duc­tor-tobe Valery Gergiev (who would sub­se­quently be­come an Off Cen­tre hon­orary patron) and where Boris stud­ied with Regina, sis­ter of the great Vladimir Horowitz.

But as that Star head­line also sug­gests, they im­mi­grated to Canada by way of Aus­tria’s City of Dreams. And it was there, as per­form­ers, that they ex­pe­ri­enced the still-ac­tive, cen­turies-old tra­di­tion of sa­lon con­certs, in which stom­achs as well as ears have to be fed.

That was back in 1978 and they might well have stayed in Vi­enna, nib­bling Demel pas­tries, had Boris Zarankin’s Ed­mon­ton-based un­cle not per­suaded them that a brighter fu­ture awaited in Canada.

Sure enough, af­ter an in­tro­duc­tory year and a half in Ed­mon­ton, they fell in love with Van­cou­ver (they could read a ther­mome­ter, af­ter all), spend­ing seven years in the Pa­cific metropo­lis play­ing recitals, ap­pear­ing with the Van­cou­ver Sym­phony Orches­tra and teach­ing be­fore be­ing lured to Toronto by the Royal Con­ser­va­tory of Mu­sic.

Al­though no longer at the con­ser­va­tory, they re­main ac­tive teach­ers, with much of their per­form­ing now fo­cused on the se­ries they in­au­gu­rated at a mu­sic store in a Markham mall in 1994 (and sub­se­quently trans­ferred to the Arts and Let­ters Club and Glenn Gould Stu­dio, be­fore tak­ing up res­i­dence in the ren­o­vated church shared by Tafel­musik and the Toronto Con­sort).

One of the iden­ti­fy­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics of the Trin­ity-St. Paul’s events is the sight of the au­di­ence head­ing, lem­min­g­like, at in­ter­mis­sion to­ward the re­fresh­ment hall where care­fully cho­sen Vi­en­nese pas­tries await con­sump­tion.

Not that the mu­si­cal menu isn’t equally tempt­ing. Off Cen­tre con­certs al­ways have a theme, one of this sea­son’s pro­grams be­ing built around an ex­plo­ration of that 19th­cen­tury dance craze known as the waltz, an­other around the mu­sic of Beethoven.

Avid read­ers and trav­ellers, the Zarank­ins like to con­tex­tu­al­ize the mu­sic on their pro­grams, us­ing a host to pro­vide back­ground. Alan Walker of McMaster Univer­sity was the first, the late pi­anist Stu­art Hamil­ton fol­lowed (de­cid­ing, at 80, to take Zarankin piano lessons as well), with daugh­ter Ju­lia some­times fill­ing the role in re­cent sea­sons.

Look­ing back on their 118 con­certs, it is easy to find mu­sic new to Toronto (even newly scored; they once per­formed Rossini’s “Pe­tite messe solonelle” with ac­cor­dion­ist Joseph Macerollo tak­ing the har­mo­nium part).

“Our big­gest chal­lenge as per­form­ers,” Inna Perkis says, “is to keep our au­di­ence en­gaged.”

“And when we be­gin to re­hearse with our artists,” her spouse con­tin­ues, “we don’t yet know the or­der of the pro­gram. We have to dis­cover what works best. This re­quires trust.”

That holds true on both sides of the foot­lights. An Off Cen­tre con­cert is never sim­ply a nice col­lec­tion of pieces. It is an af­ter­noon of trust and dis­cov­ery.


Hus­band-and-wife pi­anists Boris Zarankin and Inna Perkis are cel­e­brat­ing the 25th an­niver­sary of their Off Cen­tre Mu­sic Sa­lon.

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